The state of our English

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

In an increasingly globalised India the demand for English-knowing workers is growing. But how many Indians in this category can speak the language with precision and clarity?

WE no longer need to consider arguments for and against the retention of English as a means of communication, of scholarship, research, management, finance and as a creative medium for poetry, novels and plays. The language has been here for over 50 years after the British left, and, if anything, has consolidated its position in the social, political and economic discourse in this country. One has only to look at the large numbers of `teaching' shops that have mushroomed in all our cities - British Institute of English, Oxford English Institute, Academy of English, and similarly named hole-in-the-wall places all of which have scores of eager applicants wanting to learn, or improve, their English. Away from these teaching shops, one has only to enquire at the British Council offices to realise the enormous demand for places in their English language courses.

Several decades ago, it seemed as if studying English in universities was a faintly colonial, and therefore undesirable thing to do; those of us who did were looked on, more often than not, as oddities, misguided young people who should have known better. Now one is given to understand that English is one of the sought-after courses of study, and evidence of this is available in the high cut-off marks prescribed by colleges for those who wish to study that course. This needs to be accepted without any attached moral reactions; it simply reflects the needs and concerns of young people in the 21st century.

As globalisation spreads, it brings with it greater demands for people who know English. We can see that in the call centres that are coming up in a number of big cities. But as all this happens, we need to see very clearly that this demand for English-speaking men and women is not something that exists shorn of any context, of a kind of underpinning to the ability to converse in and use the language. It is different from, say, the production of toothpaste or other toiletries. Knowing English means knowing something of its literature, its traditions and acquired idiosyncrasies.

This is obvious, but needs to be stated, as there are some who think it is unnecessary. No language can be learnt in aseptic isolation; one needs to know its social, literary and cultural context while learning it. The colloquialisms that all languages have, the turns of phrase that have become a part of the language, all these needs to be known in their context if one is serious about learning the language. And it is certainly no different with English. The origins of commonly used phrases like `beyond the pale' or `robbing Peter to pay Paul' need to be known, at least in general terms before one can use them and not become a laughing stock.

It is not just a matter of good English; it has to do more with communication. We use the language to communicate and if we want that communication to be completely clear and total, we simply have to know enough of the language to be able to shape it and mould it to convey the precise thought or concept or idea we wish to convey. This is a requirement across the board; a philosopher needs clarity of communication as much as a manager in a corporate office. But are clarity and precision features of the English we use?

To a great extent, it is the sudden and very great demand of English-knowing people that has led to a dumbing down in the use of the language, and of making it less than precise and clear. The teaching shops have people `teaching' who have a very poor grasp of the language, and this is compounded by the kind of English the young consider `in' - the mixture of Hindi or Bengali or Tamil with English, which then comes out as a kind of pidgin. Indifference in classrooms - often because the teachers know no better - and the abrupt entry into a workplace where pidgin will not do, makes the young people fumble with the pitifully limited English vocabulary they have. One has only to listen to some of them trying to speak the language coherently to understand how it has descended, from being a vehicle of clear communication to the level of pidgin: Like, I mean it was nice and all, but, like, it was sort of difficult and things - is the general level of communication. Among more enlightened users of the language, there is a very limited vocabulary no matter how fluent they are. And, inevitably, communication conditions perception, reducing it to the terms in which it can be communicated.

It is not that every speaker of English needs to be a Shakespeare; but there has to be a basic skill with the language that has to be learned through a process of hard work and some discipline. Teachers need to be, particularly in the large number of state-run schools all over the country, competent enough in the language to be able to teach it. They clearly are not, judging by the students they produce.

That is where the problem starts. With schools and the teachers of English. Not in the upmarket private schools, but in the district and city municipal and state-run schools, including many Kendriya Vidyalayas. The teachers of English are not very conversant with the language, or have a kind of textbook familiarity with it, something that helps no one. In fact that kind of teaching makes learning the language distasteful to a child, and makes pidgin appear to be more comfortable, more fun to use. It gets worse in universities, where the attention given to the familiarity students have with the language is, for the most part, perfunctory. One is referring here to students of subjects other than English, but, sadly, many of those studying English are also unable to express themselves clearly, and take shelter behind jargon and learning set answers off by rote.

Meanwhile, policymakers and planners continue to delude themselves by living in their own little world of statistics and figures. India has the second largest number of people who know English, second only to the United States, over 200 million Indians are familiar with the English language - these are the kind of half truths that are trotted out to anyone who wants it. The plain fact is that the knowledge of English is never questioned; if it were, then the truth would come out of the closet. And because no attention is being paid to this we may pay a heavy price in the years to come. How many of our medical graduates and students know English well enough to be able to read an advanced medical textbook? Or listen to and comprehend what a lecturer is saying? We have proof of where all this is taking us in the fact that the first group of pilots from the Indian Air Force sent to Britain for training on the British Hawk jet trainer aircraft said that their main difficulty was the English language. The armed forces, one would have thought, pride themselves in the fact that their officers speak and understand English very well. Obviously they do not when they are tested internationally.

This is a problem of these times and needs to be understood. If it is not, then we may well become a country known for its ability to speak English in a manner that no one else in the world understands, and where we, in our turn, have no clue when spoken to in English. To our scholarship, our professions, our researchers in various fields, that would bring down an iron curtain of our own making.

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